Sunday, December 14, 2014

Does academic research have to be relevant? (Some thoughts on Hayek and the Virgin Mary.)

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Can A Philosopher Govern the United States? The Case of F.A. Hayek.” You can listen the whole episode online here.

There is a certain amount of faith required to advocate for philosophy. We tell our students (or our radio and blog audiences) that even the oldest ideas are still relevant. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about someone who lived two hundred or two thousand years ago, we continually promise that if we can get people to understand what they are saying, we can all learn something new and important about the world around us.

What’s funny about philosophers though, is that we spend most of our time arguing about what those ideas actually are. Instead of showing how historical thinkers are genuinely important to contemporary debate—instead of asking what Machiavelli or Jeremy Bentham might say about what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri, for example—we fight about the meaning of their texts. We undermine one another’s interpretations, we publish jargon-filled journal articles for tenure, and we focus on the most obscure terms and claims, and make them the center of our careers. Then, in the midst of it all, we wonder bitterly why cancer researchers get paid the big bucks and why we are still struggling to retain an audience.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why is there no real education in the Harry Potter books?

For more philosophical images like this one, subscribe to our Instagram feed.

I got an energetic response to the Philosophy is Everywhere post pictured above. In it, I suggested that since none of the Hogwarts students get a true liberal-arts education, they won’t grow up to be creative. There were two basic criticisms in response. Some claimed I misrepresented Hogwarts and others argued that I am wrong to suggest that people can’t create art without going to school. The first is a matter of interpretation and less philosophically interesting. My response to that is simply that arthimancy is not math and the history of magic is not world history. Hogwarts students should take all of these subjects, not to mention Composition 101, so they, not the quill, will know how to write. The second criticism however is wonderfully rich and worth exploring. The connection between creativity and education is fascinating.

As with most of the snippets I post, the philosophical issues are simplified and made as stark as possible—public philosophy is often philosophy at a glance. But the substantive questions are still there: what is the purpose of education and what kind of curricula should be prioritized? There are massive debates all over the world about the importance of art, music, theater, and literature in schools. In the U.S. and the UK, they are being pushed aside for STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). All of the Hogwarts classes are the wizarding equivalents of STEM, with the possible exception of the history of magic, which everyone but the half-muggle Hermione hates. If we can conceive of a wizarding world in which the arts and humanities are unnecessary, it’s that much easier to justify a real school in which they are unimportant too.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My boyfriend wants to have a threesome with another girl, but I want to have one with another guy. What would Plato say? [Ask a philosopher]

Recently, PQED got this email as part of our Ask a philosopher invitation. Thank you anonymous email writer. It made me feel like a real advice columnist!

Dear PQED:
My boyfriend and I have been dating for six months and we talked about having a threesome. He wants a threesome with another girl and I want one with another guy. I think he's homophobic and he says I'm no fun. We are both philosophy majors (he's a junior and I'm a senior), and I told him that Plato would be on my side. Do you think I'm right? And who should we have a threesome with?
Get my boyfriend out of the cave!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Introducing the "Philosophy is Everywhere" project...because, well, philosophy really is everywhere.

When we teach philosophy, we teach the great books and the complicated arguments. But there is so much more philosophy than what we see in college. The Philosophy is Everywhere project aims at highlighting the little bits of philosophy that we encounter every day. The quotes from celebrities, the passages in books, the comments from politicians, the art, music, and day to day conversation that happens while we are busy looking at other things. These are all philosophy, too.

Philosophy is Everywhere is a new Instagram-based project aimed at getting the attention of a younger, more pop-culture aware audience. It speaks to people in their teens and twenties, and to the older folks who have never let go of the excitement of seeing the “thoughtful” in their entertainment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Is there intelligence in working-class jobs?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “The Intelligence in Everyday Work.” You can listen the whole episode online here.

There is an attitude among men of a certain generation, that real work involves wearing a suit. While Americans have always spoken romantically about laboring with our hands, and politicians running for office fight over who is the most working class, there is still a cultural commitment to the idea of dressing up for a job. Going to an office is seen as somehow better than not doing so, and wearing a suit means being higher on the food chain than those who do physical labor. I have known quite a few people who put off being contractors or artisans until after they retired, and who, even though they may never admit it, were happier making things than they ever were sitting at a desk.

It’s not that we as Americans don’t celebrate manual labor; it’s that we celebrate it in a very narrow way. Whether it’s Andy Dufresne downing a beer after tarring a roof in the Shawshank Redemption, or Peter Gibbons working construction at the end of OfficeSpace, when our heroes do choose a life of physical work, it’s the sunlight and the fresh air that bring them happiness. The movement of their bodies and the fatigue in their arms and legs signify a job well done, not some deeper intellectual commitment to the project at hand. Whatever praise we have for the working classes, none of it involves their minds.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Should white women be permitted to belly dance or twerk? (On cultural appropriation.)

In an article called Why I can’t stand white belly dancers, Randa Jarrar argues that white women who belly dance are “playing at brownness” and dressing in “Arab drag.” Since belly dancing is historically Arab, she explains, and since it is still used as a form of protest in Egypt, white women shouldn’t do it. To those who object to her stance, citing their own love, respect, and commitment to the art, she responds simply, “I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.”

It is unclear why cultural appropriation has become the object of such liberal ire, but Jarrar is not alone in her objections. She communicates the same hostility Miley Cyrus faced when she twerked at the MTV Music Awards. Cyrus is white, twerking is a traditionally black dance, and her act was seen as a form of cultural theft. Doing something from someone else’s culture, even with love and respect, is now interpreted as racism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Is it ever okay to put a Star of David on a Christmas tree?

I recognize that I have a visceral and probably overblown reaction to seeing Stars of David on Christmas trees, but I do. I hate it. So, rather than give in to brute emotion, I thought I’d offer a clear philosophical explanation as to why it is wrong to do so. This way, when people ask me why I’m upset about something so trivial, I can show them this post. In doing so, I hope to explain why, in fact, decorating one’s tree with the Jewish symbol is not trivial at all. It is tremendously problematic.

There are, I believe, three reasons why putting a Star of David on a Christmas tree is wrong:

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How should we think about antisemitism?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “How to Think About Antisemitism” You can hear the whole episode online here. 

People think that prejudice is simple, that it involves lack of thought. The most common response to someone’s bigotry is that the offender just “doesn’t know any better,” and that he or she simply needs to get out more, meet new people, and be open-minded. While it’s true that lack of experience can make prejudice worse, this kind of ignorance is anything but simple. It’s built on history, attached to our common texts, and supported by all aspects of our lives. Most of what justifies our prejudices is so familiar that it is invisible to us; this is particularly true about antisemitism.

I am, no doubt, the first Jew that most of my North Dakota students will meet. Most of them will not even discover my background until midway through the semester, when it comes up in discussion. When I taught on the East and West coasts, my students recognized Weinstein as a common Jewish name, but not here. Most have no idea. But these young men and women who have never knowingly interacted with a Jew before me, feel they have a strong understanding of what Jews believe, of what our place in history is, of what’s wrong with us. Most have been learning about Jews since they were old enough to understand what Christmas is, and all regularly encounter jokes and slights about us on the internet. Almost everyone has seen who we are framed as incompetent, neurotic, and dominated, in almost any Ben Stiller movie. Meet the Parents, There’s Something About Mary…lessons on how Jews simply don’t operate properly in the world.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why? Radio needs your questions about antisemitism -- by tomorrow!

Dear listeners,

Tomorrow (September 3), Why? Radio will be prerecording an episode called “How to Talk about Antisemitism,” with guest Daniel Goldhagen, author of numerous books, including The Devil that Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism and Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.

Since we won’t be broadcasting live, we hoped you could submit a question in advance. We’ll try to get to as many as we can.

Send your questions to or post them below.

By the way, the shorter version of the episode will be broadcast on September 14 at 5 central, and the longer podcast will be available around that time as well. As always, your feedback is most welcome!

Thank you in advance and, as always, thank you for your support!

-Jack Russell Weinstein and The Why? Radio team

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How should we solve the problem of refugee children? (Answer: Sell them to the highest bidder.)

The photo and background on the refugee crisis can be found here.

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that as many as ten of the children the United States deported back to Honduras have been killed by the very people they were escaping from. They were sent back because American activists pressured them to do so, and given my horror and grief at the news, I wanted to find a way to persuade opponents to change their minds and welcome refugee children. I think the answer can be found in the Evangelical Christian community.

It has become very popular amongst some Evangelicals to adopt children from Eastern European countries. Special needs children appear to be the preference, in part because the orphanages are terrible and any child who needs extra care faces a horrendous and lonely life. But the children can only be adopted if the prospective parents pay huge amounts of money to foreign agencies, sometimes more than $30,000. Often, the adoptive parents are folks who have committed to living debt free, so they raise money at their churches and from friends, have bake sales, and work tirelessly to gather their pennies. Even so, despite their promise to avoid debt, many will take mortgages to get the fee. When the children do arrive in America, they become a kind of status symbol in the community, a way of publicizing the parents’ commitment to love and care for those in need.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are we morally obligated to accept the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

(Video has NSFW language.)

As anyone on social networks knows, the Internet is full of videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads to support the ALS Association, an organization that advocate for issues related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease). As part of the Challenge, the participants nominate the next water dumpers who then get to nominate the ones after that. The question I want to ask is whether or not someone is morally obligated to accept the Challenge, or whether they can reject it and still be considered a good person.

The Ice Bucket campaign has been curious to watch because it started as a choice: people were challenged to either donate money or dump water on their heads. Getting doused was supposed to be a punishment for being selfish. But now, presumably, people are doing both and drenching themselves to show that they donated. Being frozen has become a reward for doing something charitable.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is civil disobedience not a "nice" thing to do?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Saying 'No' Through Civil Disobedience” You can hear the whole episode online here.

Today’s episode is about not getting along with people who are committing what our guest will call moral crimes. We’re going to talk about a variety of topics, all of which are familiar to us in political debate. It will be easy to see them as purely hypothetical, so for the sake of our discussion, I wanted to provide a concrete example that can’t be theorized away: a neighborhood father is a registered sex offender.

The man in question abused a young girl for many years. He served time in prison and is now married with two kids of his own. His children are great. They are well-behaved, friendly, easy going, and the girl is friends with my daughter, so she spends a fair amount of time at our house. My daughter, however, is not allowed to reciprocate. She’s forbidden from going to their house or playing in their backyard. We have never had the parents over for coffee and we won’t, but we are cordial to the mom, and cool but polite on the rare occasions we see the dad. The other neighbors seem to treat them similarly, especially those with kids.

Listen to the Jack Russell Weinstein/Alan Colmes Interview on open-carry gun activists and on whether gun owners are a protected class.


Last night, I was interviewed by Alan Colmes on Fox News Radio. The subject, not surprisingly, was open-carry laws, but he was particularly interested in my comments that gun owners are not a protected class. That last issue has been picked up by the NRA, Opposing Views, Campus Reform and others.

Frankly, I'm a little surprised by the attention this innocuous comment got, since protected classes are clearly defined by the courts. But, if things remained simple, I wouldn't have a job, and I'm happy my remarks were layered enough to bring out the philosophical issues underpinning my earlier blog post.

Anyhow, here is the link to the interview on Fox News Radio's website.

Please submit your comments below. Since all of this started on PQED, it would be nice for my readers to have a say, as well.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why? Radio and Fox News, together?!?! Why?'s Host Jack Russell Weinstein to appear on Alan Colmes show, tonight at 6 p.m. central

A special event:

Tonight, Wednesday, August 13, at 6 p.m. central (7:00 Eastern)

Jack Russell Weinstein, host of Why? Radio,
interviewed by
Alan Colmes on Fox News Radio.

Inspired by the recent viral PQED blog post and video, Jack and Allan will be discussing gun ownership and why Jack believes that gun owners are not a protected class under the U.S. Constitution.

Alan Colme’s show is syndicated nationally and can be heard on your local Fox News Radio station, as well as online at:


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Is it moral for me to have children even though I don’t have a job? [Ask a philosopher]

James from The Why? Movement (nice name!) asked:
“Is it ethical for me to start a family with the knowledge that I do not have a full-time job (i.e. one that has health benefits) at the moment, but the hope that I will by the time my child is born?”

In the United States, having children has moved from an expectation, to a question of rights, to a matter of privilege. For much of human history, married couples were expected to have babies and to have them quickly. If they didn’t, it was usually because one of the two were physically unable. But these days, we have shifted from asking when people will have kids to asking whether they should be allowed to. James is asking the latter.

There were lots of reasons for these changes: developments in birth control, changes in the status of women, lower mortality rates of children, a more sophisticated understanding of what marriage is, and the advent of child protection organizations that can take children away from unfit parents, are but a few. But three philosophical shifts are particularly important.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Two brief videos about the open-carry debate.

For those of you who are interested, the University of North Dakota asked me a few questions about the viral PQED entry:  

How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists? 

and my follow-up: 

Should people run away from open-carry activists? A response to a thousand comments. 

I think they turned out well; thanks Craig for asking!

(Post your comments below and please consider visiting out YouTube channel: TheIPPL.)

Monday, July 14, 2014

How should we talk (and post) about Israel and Gaza? A guide to remaining human.

Israel and Gaza are at war; there really is no other word for it. And as the fighting escalates, so does the propaganda. The fact of the matter is though, that no matter how much blame the media gets for presenting one-sided points of view, it is everyday people who are doing most of the arguing. Inflammatory blog posts, poorly-researched news stories, and misidentified pictures are being shared at breakneck speed. All of it is being presented as equally true and each new post is touted as the smoking gun. It’s got to stop. It does no good and prevents any possibility for reconciliation.

With that in mind, I would like to propose the following guidelines for real discussion and true understanding:

1. Consider the experience of the other side.

Arguments are weapons and tend to eclipse the reality that people live under. History is important, but what motivates people is what they encounter outside their door or in their bomb shelter. So, in order to have a real discussion, we need to empathize and enter into the perspective of each side.

For example, it is terrible to live in Israel when Hamas is lobbing missiles randomly into neighborhoods. People are petrified and the randomness of it all makes matters worse.

Now, there are many who will read this last sentence and will protest “but Israel bombs…,” but STOP! We’ll get there. Just be quiet, calm yourself, and reflect. If you are reading this blog post right now you are not in danger. Take a moment and consider the experience of living under the threat of hundreds, if not thousands, of randomly fired missiles, and remember, everyone in Israel loves their families and wants a good life. Being under the constant threat of arbitrary missile fire is an awful way to live.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Was America always laissez-faire?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Do we live in a commercial republic? A discussion about American Government and its Economy” You can hear the whole episode online here.

Something has happened in the last two decades that has become so normal, we rarely think about it: we all know how much money movies make. Box office grosses of opening weekends are reported as major news stories. There are no more epics, only blockbusters.

Sure, film companies have done this forever, but they are businesses out for a profit and we are audiences out for a good time. Is the movie experience going to be any better if the ticket sales are high? I doubt it. But this is the time we live in, and there’s a word for money being the ultimate standard of success: capitalism.

I’m an Adam Smith scholar—longtime listeners know that—and I have more than a soft spot for the free market, but there’s also a case to be made that capitalism is a virus, that it overtakes everything it encounters, from arts and entertainment, to politics itself. America thinks of itself as a Democracy, but every other country in the world thinks of us in terms of our economy and power, and truth be told, our most vocal politicians and pundits seem to agree. Capitalism and democracy, they think, are the same thing. Just as movie quality is discovered through ticket sales, the will of the people, they tell us, is declared with our wallets.

Monday, July 7, 2014

[Repost] Leaving the Classroom Behind: “Teaching” the Public Humanities

A few years ago, I was asked to write a piece on my public-philosophy pedagogy for the blog Teaching Thursday. It appears that the blog is no longer online and I wanted to repost it because I refer to the essay surprisingly frequently. It is very "inside baseball," and probably mostly of interest to other teachers, but it does provide a good glimpse into the choices that college professors have to make when they decide to do something like PQED, WHY? Radio, or The Institute for Philosophy in Public Life.  

"Leaving the Classroom Behind: "Teaching" the Public Humanities"
First posted online on August 12, 2010. 

In the last two years, I have become immersed in the public humanities movement: the attempt to bring philosophy, history, literature and other related arts out of the classroom and into the general public. For me, it took the form of founding and directing the Institute for Philosophy in Public Life (IPPL), a partnership between UND and the North Dakota Humanities Council. We have a radio show, a film series, a blog, a  lecture series, an annual magazine, and a fellows program. With all of this in mind, Bill asked me to reflect on the difference between teaching in the classroom and teaching towards the general public, a task that is made more difficult by the fact that I am reluctant to consider any of my IPPL work as “teaching” at all.

While many in the general public like to learn, very few of them feel comfortable being taught. Once out of school, people like to consider themselves autodidacts, and nothing alienates them more than a person who imposes classroom structures upon a conversation, speaking to them as if they’re students and implying some sort of intellectual superiority. Most people associate school with homework, hierarchies, and lack of voice, and while for many, college was a better experience than high school, university life is still associated with grading, tests, and stress.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

[Follow-up] Should people run away from open-carry activists? A response to a thousand comments.

Last week I argued that people encountering a gun activist who is openly carrying a weapon should leave restaurants immediately and make the activist pay for their meal. This struck a chord. As of right now, that post has been shared by over 70,000 people and there are almost 1,000 comments. By the time you read this, there will be more. First and foremost, THANK YOU! Thank you to everyone who read it, shared it, and commented on it. Even if we disagree, I am deeply honored that you all took the time to consider what I wrote and I look forward to continuing the discussion. Here is my response to all those who took the time to post their thoughts. It is long, but 1,000 comments are a lot to consider. 

The response to my open-carry argument was overwhelming and I intentionally stayed out of it so that people could talk amongst themselves. I think it is time, now, to respond to those comments that I think were the most philosophically interesting, because, of course, this is a philosophy blog and not one that defends a particular public policy.

By philosophically interesting I mean that I am responding to those comments that refer to theoretical issues that lie at the foundation of the debate. They tend to be definitional or general in scope, and they usually apply to other debates as well.

This means that I will pass over the insults, the misogyny, and homophobia. I will ignore the anger and the recriminations, although I suspect I will end up writing about the rhetoric sometime in the future. I will also pass over the people who claim Hitler took away everyone’s guns as a prelude to the holocaust, although I did write a separate post about that.

[PSA] Hitler did not take away everyone's guns and Jews could not have used them to stop the holocaust.

Anytime someone argues that the holocaust could have been stopped if only Hitler had not taken people's guns away, just post a link to this and save yourself some time.

1. Hitler did not take away everyone's guns.

Hitler did not call for disarming German citizens (source). In fact, in 1938, the Nazi government deregulated most guns (source). After the war, they found significant numbers of firearms in people’s houses. They did eventually prohibit German-born Jews, first from manufacturing and trading, and then from owning any weapons of any kind, including guns, knives, and truncheons (and, interestingly, carrier pigeons), but foreign-born Jews were permitted to keep their weapons, and all this was done five years after the first concentration camps opened and the anti-Jewish laws began (source). Even on the rare occasion that Jews used guns to defend themselves, they were massacred. In the Warsaw Ghetto uprising “only about 20 Germans were killed, while some 13,000 Jews were massacred. The remaining 50,000 who survived were promptly sent off to concentration camps” (source). And, of course, as Tom Diaz puts it, “the Jews of Poland did in fact have armed protection. It was called the Polish Army” (source). That did not work so well, either. Also, incidentally, “Hitler” did not do anything. The German government and people worked together and, as Daniel Goldhagen shows in great detail, dissenters were not killed, even if they were in the military (source).

The point is that the Nazis didn't just take the Jews' guns away, they took everything away, and to focus on guns alone is arbitrary. This was not gun control; it was human control. 

2. Guns could not have stopped the steps towards the Final Solution.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Why ask Amy, Prudence, or Dan Savage, when you can ask Plato, Kierkegaard and Simone de Beauvoir? (Help PQED with its new advice project.)

So, we at PQED thought we would do something fun, amidst all the discussion about guns, sports, and child molestation. We are going to try a philosopher’s advice column and we need your help. Send us questions that you want answered or scenarios you need advice about. We are pretty open to anything—dating or relationship advice, life decisions, ethical quandaries—whatever you throw at us, we’ll take a shot at. We’re not advice experts, of course, but we’ll put the philosophical spin on your question that no one else does. It’s worth a try, right? What have you got to lose?

This is something we’ve done before. We have already given dating advice once and helped someone decide whether to take gloves from a Lost and Found. Read those entries and see if you can imagine getting our input. (Actually, Jack, who writes the posts, is well-known for giving excellent advice to friends, family, and students. Just ask him. He'll tell you.)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

How should people respond to open-carry gun-rights activists?

I have removed the original image as requested by its owner.
Please keep that in mind when you read the comments people have posted

As most people know, there are activists in Texas who are making a point of going to public places with visible firearms. They have gotten a lot of attention because some chain restaurants and stores have prohibited them from openly carrying their weapons, mostly because it frightens other patrons.

This fear is legitimate. As many have pointed out, there is no way for bystanders to know whether the people with guns are “good guys” or “bad guys.” It is rational to be afraid of someone with a weapon, especially if you know nothing about them.

Furthermore, as Jon Stewart has pointed out better than anyone else, since people are often legally permitted to use guns to protect themselves when they are legitimately afraid for their lives, there is no predicting when someone is going to see the activists and shoot before they ask questions. This will happen. It is just a matter of time. And, in many cases, it will be a legal and rational act. None of us want to be victims of the crossfire.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A special internet-only episode of WHY? Radio: The Disappeared: Human Rights and Art

Why? Philosophical Discussions about Everyday Life

“The Disappeared: Human Rights and Art”

Guests: Sarah Cahill, Christian Correa, Father Jack Davis, and Emmanuel Jal
A panel discussion recorded at the North Dakota Museum of Art, on December 2, 2009.

Five years ago, The North Dakota Museum of Art hosted a panel on art and human rights to commemorate their exhibit The Disappeared. We thought the recording was lost forever, but we found it, cleaned it up, and have put it online.

[Follow up]: PQED gets translated into Farsi -- and I allude to a whole bunch of philosophical issues in the process.


My previous post asked about the role of violence in children’s literature, specifically whether we should talk about war and school shootings. I was inspired by a remarkable book called Good Night, Commander, which was originally published in Farsi (or Persian, if you prefer), and translated into English. (Buy the book!)

Well, a remarkable thing happened: that very post has now been translated into Farsi by the wonderful Kave Behbahani, who translated my book On MacIntyre, and who has been way more generous to me than I deserve. He wanted both to make sure that Good Night, Commander’s author Ahmad Akbarpour could read it, and he wants to pass my words on to a literary magazine in Iran. As I say, way too generous.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Should there be children’s books about the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre?

"I told them … I love you all very much."
First shared on This Isn't Happiness.

A few years ago, I received the book Good Night, Commander as a gift, inscribed, by the author, to my daughter, who was about five-years old at the time. It tells the story of a boy who lost his leg during the Iran/Iraq war and who constantly imagines himself in battle. We are introduced to him when his Uncle tells him to remove his prosthetic leg in the house, and the boy responds, “But I don’t want to. How can I fight on one leg? My enemy will just laugh at me.”

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Should art ever be labelled as "Not Safe for Work"?

(This picture was used with permission, and both Molli and Brittney have asked for feedback on their site.)
Molli is an aspiring model; Brittney is a photographer trying to put together a portfolio. Molli poses nude for Brittney and they post the test shots here, hoping to get feedback. They link it to Facebook and the social network bans the photos. Brittney gets upset and complains about American prudishness and about her photos being art, not porn. She also protests that people have a choice to click the link or not (as they do with the links in this blog post), and that she is not forcing anyone to see nudity if they don’t want to. I suspect this is a scenario most of my readers would be familiar wit

The standard way of dealing with such links is by labeling them NSFW. This tells people that they should be aware that they could get in trouble, or offend people, or maybe even just look creepy if they click on it in public. It also acts as a warning to parents who may not want their kids to see such things. It is, I think, a reasonable pragmatic compromise that protects everyone’s freedom, but it hides an interesting philosophical problem. I would suggest that once something is deemed art, no matter how “dirty” it might be, it should no longer be labelled "not safe for work." Its sexual content should no longer to be regarded as prurient, but a part of something bigger and more important.

Monday, June 9, 2014

“Are there too many people for our environment?”

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was the same as the question above: "Are there too many people for our environment?" You can hear the whole episode online here.

North Dakota is the nineteenth biggest state in the U.S. It is roughly the same size as Washington and it is bigger than Florida. But while Florida houses nineteen and a half million people and Washington has seven million, North Dakota has only about 700,000. If you plan even a little bit, you can go a long time without seeing anyone else. 

This freaks my mother-in-law out. She’s from North Carolina, a smaller state with a much larger population. When she walks around Grand Forks, she likes to ask where all the people are, and my wife always responds “these ARE all the people, Mom.”  Yet even with its smaller size and ten million people, North Carolina still has plenty of places where you can hide. Eric Rudolph, the fugitive Olympic Park bomber, lived in the Appalachian Mountains for five years before he was apprehended.

So, with all of this said, it may seem odd to have a discussion about overpopulation, or, rather, it may seem strange to assume that it’s an American problem. Sure, if we look at pictures of Karachi or Mumbai we can see it, but that’s not here. That’s there.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Are Indian tribes sovereign nations?


 This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was the same as the question above: "Are Indian Tribes Sovereign Nations?" You can hear the whole episode online here.

We all tell the stories of our lives as if they are immediately understandable. We expect people to hear our history and grasp, pretty quickly, how we ended up where we are and why we do what we do. Our narratives are our explanation for who we claim to be.

We do the same thing when we tell the story of our nation. In America’s case, we can describe the progress of an exceptional country or the bullying of an imperialist one; we can paint a picture of a battlefield wracked by inequality and racism, or a home of great opportunity. But however we tell the story, we expect, for the most part, that the connection between the pieces will be self-evident. History feels like reason, justification, and explanation, all at the same time. It is told as if it is simple, obvious, and intuitive.

But the fact of the matter is that there is no easy connection between the past, the present, and the future. There is no inevitable outcome for any one event, and the facts are buried in meaning, emphasis, and experience. History—what actually happened—is hidden by historiography, the story that we create to connect and explain events, and this historiography is the epicenter of our deepest most intractable disagreements. It is also the core of our greatest misunderstandings.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Can there be a world without borders?

This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was "Can there be a world without borders?" You can hear the whole episode online here.

When I moved to Vienna, Austria, in 1994, the only other country I had ever visited was Canada. I was twenty-four and I knew two German words, please and whipped cream; I learned them from John Irving novels. I took a bus from the airport and then a taxi. At the end of the trip, I gave the driver money I didn’t understand and said, “I want to give you a tip, but I don’t know how much.” Like most Austrians, he was honest, taking only a few small coins and saying thank you. If I had been in Rome, the driver would probably have taken every Euro I owned. Austrian and Italian cabbies have different moral codes.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What is humanity’s greatest invention?

There are many reasons to like being a professor; I have a great job. But one of my biggest frustrations is that my work life has no boundaries. There is always more to do, and because so much of my work is done at home, it is easy to let it eclipse everything else. One study shows that professors work an average of 45-55 hours per week. (There is a newer study that breaks down these numbers according to university level, but I can’t find it.) In short, many professors will tell you that there is a constant level of guilt when they take time off because they “should be working.” This is especially true in the summer. 

To manage the guilt and pressure, my wife and I decided to commit to a very old practice. About a year ago, we started observing Shabbat: the Jewish day of rest. For Christians, the Sabbath falls on a Sunday, but for Jews it’s Saturday. And, since Jewish days run sundown to sundown, our rest period ends up being Friday night to Saturday night. We light candles to commemorate the beginning, as is our religious tradition, and we have a big dinner for some friends. We devote all of Saturday to family activities, and some odds and ends around the house. We are not super-observant. We handle money on Shabbat, do our laundry, and do many other things Orthodox Jews would frown upon. There have also been Saturdays where, for one reason or another, we had to work. But these qualifications are not the point. The point is, for those 24 hours, we honor ourselves by resting as best we can. That moment when I’m done cooking dinner on Friday night and I really get to exhale, that may be the best moment of my week. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy sixth anniversary to Why? Radio – please help us have a seventh.

Last Sunday’s episode of Why? Radio got rave reviews ( It was just another example of the outstanding and unique programming we provide every month. It also marked our sixth anniversary. As unbelievable as it might seem, for six years now, Why? Radio has brought you in-depth discussions that respect your intelligence. No gimmicks, no flash, just high-energy conversations with some of the world’s best thinkers, brought to you with humor and clarity by the show’s host Jack Russell Weinstein.

But we need your help more than ever. Why? Radio has to be “self-sustaining.” We have to raise our own money and pay our own bills; we get no money from the University of North Dakota. Not surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of grants for philosophy out there and there are even fewer for public philosophy. We rely almost entirely on our listeners. So, today we are asking you to please donate. Your contribution is tax deductible, and because Why? Radio is so inexpensive to produce (every guest volunteers his or her time), your donation goes a long way. A very long way.

We would also like to offer you an incentive.

For gifts of $25 or more, donors will receive the world jazz CD Lua e Sol from Mark Weinstein (while supplies last). This is the album that contains all of the wonderful music that makes up the show’s soundtrack.

For gifts of $100 or more, donors will receive a handful of his CDs, remarkable music from Brazil, Cuba, and some straight-ahead jazz. You can visit Mark’s website and listen to his other music at

Donations of $250 or more will get the CD’s and you’ll be named on the air as an episode’s sponsor. You’ll be a role-model for all of our listeners.

So, please visit our website to donate:

Because really, if you won’t support philosophy, who will?

Thank you for your support and thank you for listening to Why? Radio.

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